BY TIM GREEN
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Dan Graham wants Massage.com to work like a good massage, relieving stress for massage therapists and their customers.
Instead of kneading muscles, however, the online massage booking service does it by helping therapists find work and customers get a massage where it’s most convenient for them.
“Essentially, we want to be the live inventory of massage therapists and spa offerings for anyone, anywhere,” Graham said.
Massage.com is Graham’s first venture beyond Austin-based BuildASign, which he founded in 2005.
That venture is now a 260-employee company, operating in four countries with $57 million in revenue in 2013. Graham’s business and civic endeavors have earned accolades including being named Austinite of the Year by the Austin Under 40 group in 2012 and Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013.
BuildASign attacked a market dominated by mom-and-pop operations with the concept that people would buy signs – from yard sale placards to big banners and more – over the Internet with no hands on experience.
Graham’s new business, in its first months of operation, is definitely hands on, at least for the therapists and their clients, but it seeks a similar result in a market that’s fragmented and sizable.
There are as many as 350,000 massage therapists in the U.S., according to the American Massage Therapy Association. Most are solo practitioners working at the client’s location or in a spa, health club, a healthcare setting or a massage-therapy franchise. In 2013, the massage industry generated $6 billion to $11 billion.
Massage.com’s initial play is to help individual massage therapists book appointments with clients in the location preferred by the clients such as home or office.
Graham said that Massage.com conducts background checks on therapists and customers so that both sides are comfortable with the arrangement.
Payment of $89 plus tip for an hour session is made online through Massage.com. The company takes a percentage of the fee.
Ron Shirley, an Austin logistics executive, used Massage.com to book a session and said “it worked extremely well.”
The therapist arrived at the appointed hour, he said, “and the massage was great.”
Graham said massage therapists can list with Massage.com whether they want to book 40 hours or two hours a month. “We just add their availability into our network,” he said.
Massage therapist Tony Castro used the site after hearing about it from colleague.
He said the process was easy and helped with bookings. He especially likes that he can stay close to home by specifying an area in which he’ll work.
So far, the service is available in Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
But Graham, who continues as BuildASign CEO, has more in mind.
He plans to expand Massage.com’s services to about 6,000 spas across the country. He said the service would help spas with online marketing and fill empty slots in the appointment books of therapists who work in the spas.
“We offer a tool to say, “Hey, you don’t need become an expert in online marketing. We’ll do that for you. And we’ll just fill your vacancies and we’ll just take a small percentage of the booking fee,’ ” Graham said. “Nobody says no to that.”
Graham said Massage.com will offer more features as it builds out.
A feature he’s enthused about is a rating system in which customers can review and rate their massage therapists and the spas in which they work. He said this should be a boon for massage therapists because those who earn high ratings should be able to draw higher fees for their services.
Massage.com’s sources of revenue include a percentage of the fee for the massage, fees for membership and subscriptions and gift card sales. Graham added that the site will offer massage-related services and products.
Massage.com is one of several companies around the country offering scheduling services for the massage business.
While most operate only in their metro areas, Zeel.com, based in New York City, has expanded to Miami, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, according to an article in TechCrunch.
Graham said that Massage.com’s nationwide spa network will set it apart from companies that book at-home massages. He’s also looking to work with hotels, corporations and nonprofit events.
And, he’s looking to repeat BuildASign’s experience in dealing with growing competition in outperforming competitors.
“I think that being first mover is great and having a great brand name is really helpful,” he said. “But ultimately we’ve got to be able to execute in the idea.”
As a name Massage.com is direct and comprehensive. And Graham found in right in his backyard.
An Austin massage therapist had owned the domain name since 1995. Screen shots of a Massage.com website from the late 1990s (viewed via the web.archive.org), show a landing page that proposes to be a one-stop shop for massages and massage products. But apparently that’s as far as the website went.
“I talked to him over the course of many months, describing where I saw the vision for Massage.com,” Graham said.
After eight months, the owner bought Graham’s vision and sold the domain name to Graham outright. But, Graham said, the previous owner has ongoing incentives as the company progresses.
So far, Graham and three others have funded the company. He said he’s not ready to disclose the amount or who the investors are.
Besides building out the website, Graham, who remains BuildASign CEO, is hiring the Massage.com management team and looking for office space.
Once ensconced, he said, “We’ll probably need to hire a full-time massage therapist to make sure everybody’s relaxed.”